The History of the Greeting Card

Written by Sandy Bell-Murray

Imagine you are standing in front of a rack of greeting cards, searching for that special card to send to someone. You might ask yourself, "How did we ever start sending greeting cards?"

greeting cards

Today there is an absolutely amazing array of greeting card choices! Cards are available for every occasion and are often personalized for friends, family members and other important people you want to acknowledge.

There are cards that contain a heartfelt message of caring or good wishes, funny cards with a humorous message and, of course, cards that are blank inside for the sender to write their own words.

So, how did we get here? Let's take a look at the long and fascinating history of greeting cards.

Early origins - The first greeting cards

It may surprise you to know that two ancient civilizations were the first to use greeting cards.

In distant times, people in China celebrated Chinese New Year with written messages of goodwill given to one another. The early Egyptians also created greeting cards. These were written on papyrus, an early writing surface similar to thick paper, and rolled into scrolls.

The next record of cards being made and exchanged is actually many centuries later. Historians confirm these were made in Germany around the year 1400. They were printed using woodcuts, a relief print-making technique where the artist carved the card's design into a wood-block surface. These cards were used to send New Year's greetings.

A short while later, the use of handmade greeting cards started to spread right across Europe. Interestingly, during the 1400s it was mainly Valentine's Day cards that were exchanged. The British Museum has in its collection what is believed to be the oldest existing Valentine card. It was created in 1415 by a French nobleman. Charles, Duke of Orléans, was captured by the British during the Hundred Years' War and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He wrote a love poem for his wife that begins, 'I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine'.

 

Greeting cards and the Renaissance

From the 14th to 17th centuries, there was a tremendous growth in the production of art and literature in Europe. This was the Renaissance period. Artists who are now household names such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo lived during this time and were an inspiration to others.

Understandably, this also influenced the production and sharing of greeting cards. Cards became a popular way for people to send expressions of goodwill, celebration and caring to those important people in their lives.

In the 15th century, Valentines and Christmas cards were the cards most often exchanged. Although New Year's cards appear to have been sent during this time period, they were not widely used until two centuries later in the 1700s.

Handmade cards could be extremely elaborate. For example, one method used was quilling. This involved cutting paper into thin strips, then bending and curling it into different shapes and gluing it onto the card's surface. The result is an appealing 3D textured design. The practice of quilling actually began with nuns and monks, who used this method to decorate books.

Early greeting cards were handmade and often one-of-a-kind pieces that were created especially for the person receiving them. They could be very expensive to make, not to mention time-consuming and if you were not artistically inclined you may have paid for the services of an artist. This made them not really accessible to the average person. However, change was coming.

Greeting cards surge

During the 1800s there was an absolute surge in the use of greeting cards! There were several reasons for this.

First was the introduction of a widespread postal service. Some form of mail delivery has been available throughout history. However, the implementation of a formal system accessible to everyone did not happen until much later. In Canada, an extensive mail delivery system started in 1763, pre-dating confederation by more than a century. By the mid-1800s, mail delivery improved again with the introduction of postage stamps that people across Britain, Europe and North America began using to send greeting cards.

Secondly, handmade cards became commercially available. People now had more opportunity to buy cards and these beautiful pieces of art became popular with those who could afford them. As in earlier times, greeting cards continued to be exchanged primarily at Valentine's Day and Christmas and there are some individuals who stand out in this business.

Esther Howland was an American artist and businesswoman credited with creating and selling some of the first Valentine's Day cards sold in the United States. While similar cards were already available in Europe and were imported to North America, Esther is credited with introducing a more affordable version. She is fondly referred to as The Mother of the American Valentine.

The very first commercial Christmas card was made in London, England in the Victorian era. A British civil servant named Sir Henry Cole hired his friend John Callcott Horsley, a painter and illustrator, to design the card. It was made of stiff cardboard with a lithograph design that was then hand-painted. In the centre of the card there is a family party happening and on side panels there are illustrations of the poor receiving donations of food and clothing. This was the first depiction of the Christmas spirit in action. There were a thousand of these available to buy.

Interestingly, this first Christmas card was produced in 1843 - the same year Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. Dickens' tale became extremely popular. This fortunate coincidence in the release of Sir Henry Cole's card likely gave a boost to the early greeting card industry.

Another reason for the surge in the use of greeting cards was the perfection of the colour lithographic process. Louis Prang, a German immigrant to the United States, introduced his process in the 1870s and his Christmas cards then began selling in England and the United States.

By far the greatest influence on the greeting card industry was the Industrial Revolution and the mechanization of the printing press. The hand printing press had been used since the late 14th century. Johannes Gutenberg, a German printer and publisher, mechanized the design of the hand press. This was a huge improvement on earlier production methods and led to the factory manufacturing of cards that could be produced incredibly quickly at a much lower cost. Greeting cards became more affordable for the general public.

Greeting cards today

Today's greeting cards are sent on religious holidays such as Christmas, Hanukkah or Ramadan, to celebrate birthdays, births, marriages and anniversaries, on Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day, to offer sympathy and encouragement, and just to let someone know we are thinking of them. 

2018 printing presses

Did you know that there are about 40 million Valentine's Day cards bought in Canada each year! Considering that Canada's population is over 36 million, that's a lot of expressions of love and caring being shared.

There is really no feeling that compares to receiving a paper greeting card with a message inside in the handwriting of a friend or family member. Some become treasured keepsakes, tucked away in a drawer to be re-read and enjoyed again many times.

Next time you pick out that perfect card for someone or receive a card in the mail, take a few moments to think about the rich background of greeting cards and wonder at the piece of history you hold in your hand.